Kuwait expelled Iran’s ambassador and 14 other Iranian diplomats July 20 and ordered the shutdown of Tehran’s cultural and military missions in the oil-rich Persian Gulf country. Iranian officials called the decision “reprehensible” and filed a complaint with the Kuwaiti charge d'affaires; Tehran has maintained its ambassador in Kuwait City.
Given Kuwait’s track record as a “neutral” state that avoids confrontations and cooperates with all neighboring countries, most recently illustrated by the Kuwaiti emir’s providing a diplomatic back channel between parties involved in the Qatar crisis, the expulsions took many by surprise. The bold move, which certainly marked a reversal in Kuwait's efforts earlier this year to defuse tension between Tehran and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, was likely aimed at demonstrating Kuwait’s solidarity with Saudi Arabia at a time when Riyadh has been stepping up pressure on Qatar and other Arab states to distance themselves from Tehran.
Officially, Kuwait’s action is a response to the Abdali case, which dates to August 2015 and involves the uncovering of a Shiite terrorist cell made up of 26 people (25 Kuwaitis and one Iranian) with alleged links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah. According to Kuwaiti officials, the suspects were guilty of possessing large quantities of weapons and ammunition and smuggling explosives into Kuwait from Iran. Tehran denies any involvement in the Abdali case.
The trial began in September 2015; appeals of it reached their conclusion last month when — as a result of a supreme court ruling — the cell’s mastermind is to spend life in prison. Around 20 others were to serve prison terms ranging from five to 15 years. A lower court had convicted most of the 26 suspects in January 2016, but an appeals court later that year acquitted a large number of them or commuted their prison sentences before setting them free. According to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassah, 14 involved in the case fled to Iran by sea after hearing about last month’s supreme court ruling, which overturned their acquittals or their reduced sentences. Kuwaiti authorities confirmed that the whereabouts of 14 of those convicted were unknown, while also saying that none had departed Kuwait via official exit points.
The implications of Kuwait’s expulsion of Iranian diplomats may have important ramifications for the country’s domestic political climate as well as its relationship with Iran. The Abdali case had already raised sectarian temperatures in Kuwait in 2015, and this recent development threatens to do so further. In stark contrast with neighboring Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Arab states, Kuwait stands out as a relative beacon of tranquility, tolerance and peaceful Shiite-Sunni coexistence in a region beset by instability and sectarian strife. Kuwait’s emir has the loyalty of his country’s Shiite minority, which constitutes one-third of Kuwait’s native population and has maintained close and cordial ties with the Al Sabah rulers since the Iraqi invasion of 1990. Today, wealthy Shiite families run large Kuwaiti conglomerates (Al Kazemi International, Marafie Group, Morad Yousuf Behbehani Group and so on) and do business in the shipping, logistics, vehicle distribution, real estate, construction, retail, trade and tourism sectors.
Kuwait’s expulsion of Iranian diplomats has the potential to further distance Saudi Arabia and Iran from any possible opportunity to defuse tension in their relationship. Based on the supposition that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism that finances and arms nefarious Shiite militias in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, Kuwait’s decision will further convince officials in other GCC states that Tehran is not genuine when it comes to calling for better relations between itself and the Arab sheikhdoms of the western and northern Persian Gulf.
To be sure, this downgrading of bilateral relations threatens to reverse progress in Kuwaiti-Iranian relations that the two countries achieved following Hassan Rouhani’s ascendancy to Iran’s presidency (2013); the emir of Kuwait’s first official visit to Iran as head of state (2014); the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s passage (2015); and the Kuwaiti foreign minister’s rare trip to Tehran (2017). On a host of regional issues, Kuwait has not sided with Saudi Arabia as much as some other GCC states, highlighted by the country’s relatively minimal role in the Riyadh-led military campaign in Yemen, Kuwait’s decision to not deploy any ground forces to Bahrain amid the unrest of 2011, and the 2014 reopening of Damascus’ embassy in Kuwait. Unlike Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which severed or downgraded relations with Tehran last year, Kuwait has maintained somewhat normalized ties with Iran despite withdrawing its ambassador to Tehran in January 2016 as a sign of solidarity with Riyadh following the Saudi execution of Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Given these factors, it was rather logical for Kuwait to pursue efforts aimed at easing tension between Tehran and the GCC earlier this year.
Although it remains to be seen whether Kuwait becomes the third GCC member after Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to sever ties with Tehran, this surprising move to expel Iranian diplomats likely resulted from stepped-up Saudi pressure at a time when the Islamic Republic maintains its role, in Saudi eyes at least, as the No. 1 threat to regional security. Simultaneously, given the Trump administration’s favoring of Sunni Arab states most committed to countering Iranian influence in the Middle East, the White House transition earlier this year has perhaps also impacted Kuwait’s foreign policy thinking, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Islamic American Summit in May.
Unquestionably, an increasingly anti-Iranian foreign policy may have major implications for Kuwait’s economic interests and the country’s domestic political arena. The possibility of signing an agreement with Tehran to import Iranian gas is a factor Kuwait must carefully consider as it aligns more closely with other GCC states against Iran. Although it is too early to determine how this recent move will impact sectarian relations in Kuwait, it is clear that regional turmoil and rising sectarian temperatures in nearby conflicts have impacted domestic Kuwaiti politics, highlighted by the Abdali case as well as the Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, which brought divisions between Kuwaiti Sunnis and Shiites to the surface. Thus, the leadership must strike a careful balance in terms of dealing with Sunni-Shiite relations at home and regional foreign policy challenges, chiefly navigating the tense Riyadh-Tehran rivalry along with the GCC’s own internal divisions that threaten to disintegrate the council.